Becoming a full-time reliever has paid dividends for Brian Duensing. The 31-year-old southpaw had mixed success as a swing-man for the Twins from 2009-2012. The best of those campaigns came in 2010 when he pitched primarily out of the bullpen. The worst was 2011 when he worked almost exclusively as a starter.
The writing was on the wall, and it unfolded into a success story. Duensing has done well as a reliever the past two seasons. Given his pitching style and demeanor, it’s not the role many might have envisioned.
“As a starter, you have time to prepare,” said Duensing. “You can look ahead to who you’ll be facing and how you’ll go about it. As a reliever, it’s ‘OK, this is everything I have’ for an inning. Compared to starting, you’re all out.
For Duensing, that doesn’t mean reaching back and pumping gas. The thoughtful former Nebraska Cornhusker is anything but all out. His fastball was a pedestrian 91.2 mph this year. In many ways, he pitches like a starter out of the bullpen.
“If I overthrow – if I’m trying to really get on it and throw a fastball by a guy – that will hinder me,” said Duensing. “I’ll tend to tense up a little bit and grip the baseball too hard. The ball won’t come out as well and my velocity will actually drop a little bit.
“I need to come into the game with the same level of adrenaline as a starter. In big situations, I have to be as calm as possible. If I stay under control, not only can I hit my spots better, the ball tends to move better.”
Like any pitcher moving from one role to another, Duensing needed to adapt. His four-pitch repertoire didn’t change when he bid adieu to the rotation– he did increase his slider usage – but a new routine was in order.
“As a starter, for a 7-o’clock game I’d go out at 6:30 and start moving around,” explained Duensing. “I had plenty of time to warm up and knew exactly what it would take to get ready. As a reliever, you might get a phone call saying they need you in two hitters. There’s a lot of wear-and-tear on your arm to get ready in a hurry.”
Not all wear-and-tear is of a physical nature. Relievers don’t have the luxury of four days off between outings. Over a long season, that means more than just starters getting longer rest periods for their arms. Extra opportunities to unwind – maybe with Bud Light – also enter the picture.
“It took me awhile to get adjusted to the mentality of being a reliever,” admitted Duensing. “You have to come to the ballpark ready every day. You might not throw for two or three games in a row, but you still have to be prepared to pitch, and that wears on you.”
The lefty has been well-prepared often the past two seasons. In 2013, he made 73 appearances and went 6-2 with a 3.98 ERA. This past season he appeared in 62 games and went 3-3 with a 3.31 ERA. Conversely, his ERA is 4.57 in 61 big-leagues starts,
“I had a full year of starting in 2011 and it didn’t go very well,” said Duensing. “They gave me that opportunity to start and once it didn’t work out, they basically said, ‘You’re more valuable to us as a reliever, so that’s where we’re going to put you.’”
Duensing was a starter in college and throughout the minor leagues. He understands the move to the bullpen – especially in a non-closer role – meant less notoriety and less earning potential. That doesn’t mean he’s wearing a long face and bemoaning his lot in life.
”Things have worked out so far.” said Duensing. “For one thing, I certainly don’t have any pull to say ‘No, I’m starting,’ Glenn Perkins started in the big leagues too, and he’s obviously doing great as our closer. I think he actually prefers to relieve.
“It’s weird. Guys who have started and don’t anymore kind of talk about the good old days of starting. But I think most of us are fine with that, because not only are we doing our jobs, we’re doing them in the big leagues. You can’t complain about that.”
Kyle Crockett has always been a reliever. All but three of his 88 appearances at the University of Virginia were out of the pen. Since signing as Cleveland’s 2013 third-round pick, he’s made 42 minor-league relief outings and 43 more in an Indians uniform.
Crockett didn’t have a choice in college – “They threw me into the reliever role and it’s kind of where I stuck” – and the same is true in pro ball. The 23-year-old doesn’t expect that to change, nor does he want it to. Earlier this season, he told me he’s been a reliever so long that it would be hard to move into a starting rotation.
His skill set backs up that belief. Crockett relies almost entirely on a four-seam fastball and a slider he said is “more of a slurve.” His “still developing” changeup was utilized just 5.7% of the time this season.
Crockett’s fastball – his college coach had him switch from a two to a four – averaged 89.2 mph in 2014, so he’s no flame-thrower. His biggest weapon is his deception.
“I kind of get my glove way up and throw out of an arm slot that’s kind of long and lean,” explained the 6-foot-2, 170-lb lefty. “My glove arm goes up and my throwing arm goes way behind it. It’s a pretty long delivery and something that’s always felt natural for me. I’ve been told I’m deceptive, although to be honest, it’s hard to tell from a pitcher’s standpoint.”
The numbers show Crockett was deceptive enough to put up a 1.88 ERA and strike out 8.4 hitters per nine innings in his first taste of big-league ball.
With more and more going down by way of the K, should batters look to put the ball in play earlier in counts? In the opinion of Bryan Price and Walt Weiss, that’s easier said than done – unless you want to compromise your strengths.
“You’ve got to be careful about trying to transform guys into something they’re not,” said Weiss, who’s at the helm in Colorado. “If you’re a guy that takes a lot of pitches, I don’t think that should change. There is strength in the ability to do that. At the major-league level, it’s tough to change your stripes.”
“Very rarely do you find somebody that can do a significant turnaround,” agreed Price, his Cincinnati counterpart. “Someone that’s a 150-strikeout-a-year guy, getting him down to 90 and getting the same type of run production is unrealistic. It would be a challenge to get that strikeout number decreased a great deal.”
Is there a way to cut down on strikeouts without changing your approach? According to Weiss, there is, and it’s not exactly revolutionary.
“For a hundred years now, when you get your pitch you want to hit it,” said Weiss.” You don’t want to miss it, regardless of where you are in the count. With all the strikeouts it becomes increasingly important to not miss your pitch when you get it.”
Brent Strom has been a popular subject here in Sunday Notes, and for good reason. The Astros pitching coach – and former Cardinals pitching coordinator – approaches his craft like Leonardo da Vinci approached life: Art and science aren’t mutually exclusive.
A.J. Hinch, Houston’s new manager, graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology. I asked what the conversations are like when he shares ideas with his erudite pitching coach.
“The whole premise is to find ways of getting outs,” responded Hinch. “If that takes something creative – something we might not know exists by the naked eye, and more information deliver a different game plan – all the better.
“We need to deliver a game plan 12 or 13 pitchers deep. It’s not just one game plan for different styles, different approaches, different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve urged Strommy to continue trying to find creative ways for us to get through the 27 outs.”
Strom recognizes the importance of working the bottom of the zone, but he’s not a believer in down, down, down. Being one-dimensional is limiting, while an ability to strategically move the ball in, out and up optimizes effectiveness. Hinch caught in KC when Strom was the Royals’ pitching coach, and they concur one size doesn’t fit all.
“You have to pitch to areas that are going to get you the most outs, and that’s very pitcher-specific,” said Hinch. “It’s also hitter specific. For a catcher, balancing strengths and weaknesses is very delicate. Anything that will positively impact games, I’m all for.”
Rick Porcello positively impacted his game by following the script espoused by Strom and Hinch. Six years into his big-league career, the right-hander became more than just a sinkerballer. That was a good thing, at least in 2014.
Porcello’s GB rate was a career low 49% – it was 55.3% in 2013 – and the difference wasn’t made up with strikeouts. His K/9 dipped from 7.22 to 5.67. Porcello’s LD% didn’t drop either. What did was his BABiP, which was below .300 for the first time.
Porcello’s ERA fell from 4.32 to 3.43, but his FIP rose from 3.53 to 3.67.
Can he sustain this season’s success? The new addition to the Red Sox staff believes he will. Porcello, who celebrated his 26th birthday yesterday, feels he’s finally figured it out.
Porcello said improved use of his curveball and doing a better job of changing speeds have been big pluses. He added that, “Changing eye-levels with a four-seam fastball and not just pounding the bottom of the zone with sinkers” make his signature pitch better. He no longer has to rely on his sinker in every tough situation, and opposing teams know that.
“You have to keep changing looks up, and keep them guessing a little bit,” said Porcello. “Coming into the big leagues at a young age, it took me a little while to develop into the pitcher I was going to be.”
In 2014, that was someone who threw a five-pitch mix that featured a nearly equal ratio of sinkers and four-seamers, both delivered just north of 90 mph. Porcello, who came to Boston from Detroit in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes, has morphed into a control-and-command guy.
Porcello has 76 wins through his age 25 season, all with Detroit. Tigers pitchers who had fewer wins going into their age 26 season include Tommy Bridges, Mickey Lolich, Jack Morris, Max Scherzer, Dizzy Trout and Justin Verlander.
A lot of trades have been consummated so far this off-season, and they’ve come together in different ways. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for many of those conversations.
With the exception of any front office people who might be reading this, we’ll never be privy to the various dialogues. As for the process itself, generalities can be gleaned by querying GMs. I addressed the subject with Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti and Minnesota’s Terry Ryan during the winter meetings.
Deals had gone down by the time I talked to Antonetti, and more than big names had changed addresses. Lower-profile players and prospects whose names hadn’t hit the rumor mill had as well. None of the transactions caught the Indians’ general manager by surprise. He told me the team does their due diligence to make sure they’re aware of which players could be available, and that no one had been moved at the winter meetings they didn’t know could be had for the right price.
How do GMs know such things?
“It’s dialogue,” said Antonetti. “The more dialogue you have, the more likely you’ll be aware of which players would be available, either directly in a trade or in a three-team scenario. There are a lot of ways you can garner that information. Around the trade deadline, and any time during the off-season from the GM meetings on, you usually have a pretty good sense of which players are available.”
According to Antonetti, the Indians had already engaged in “substantive dialogue’ with every team with the exception of “one or two in our division.” The communication came in multiple manners.
“Some GMs prefer phone calls,” said Antonetti. “Some prefer texts, some prefer email, some prefer an initial conversation in person, then on the phone. There’s no one script for conversing with different teams. It’s like anything in life – you deal with people on an individual level (and) figure out the best way to connect with them.” (Antonetti said he has no particular preference.)
“It also depends on where you are in the negotiations. If you’re trying to explore concepts and ideas, that’s usually better talked through in person or on the phone. If it’s ‘Would you do this?’ when you’re in a proposal stage and are looking for an answer, sometimes that can be communicated better over a text or email.”
The question “Would you do this?” elicits different responses from different people. It always has. Frank Robinson was once traded for Milt Pappas. Lou Brock was once traded for Ernie Broglio. It doesn’t hurt to ask, because one man’s trash might be another man’s treasure.
“You ask for certain guys,” said Ryan. “Many times you start up here and then it scales back. You’re looking to get the best return you possibly can, and many times the guy on the other side of the phone is going to say, ‘You’re nuts; we’re not going to do something like that.’ Then you have to regroup. How bad do you want the guy? You have to come to an area that’s comfortable for both sides.”
Three Sunday columns ago, a pair of former managers shared their experiences with player-acquisition. One said he had little input. The other said his opinions were valued.
Days later, I asked that question to Fredi Gonzalez at the winter meetings. Based on his response, the Braves manager falls somewhere in between the two.
“I couldn’t give you a percentage, but I do get asked,” said Gonzalez. “I get asked, ‘What do you think? How does this guy fit? Do you know him? Do you want to talk to him?”
Gonzalez met with Nick Markakis before the free-agent outfielder signed with Atlanta in early December. Gonzales said managers aren’t aware of details such as contract length, but he did have input on Markakis.
Whether or not he had a say in the A.J. Pierzynski signing is a mystery to me. If Gonzalez saw the over-the-hill catcher play last year, he couldn’t have been too enamored. Pierzynski looked like toast on both sides of the ball. More so, his effort level running out ground balls was often languorous. Unless he discovers the fountain of youth between now and opening day, he may not make it out of camp.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.